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On faith: Biblical literalism vs. theological sophistication

From Lawrence Lee

United Church of Two Harbors, Two Harbors

This past weekend I (and apparently a lot of other people) forked over some money and went to see Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” on the big screen. Some Christian leaders are panning the movie saying it isn’t faithful to the Biblical account. I counter that where it might fall short in Biblical literalism, it makes up for in theological sophistication.

The story of Noah in the Bible can be found in Genesis starting in chapter six and spanning just a few brief chapters. To stretch this story out to a feature-length film, any director would have to interpolate some material. Where Aronofsky strays from the literal text he does so to serve the narrative arch of the film and to bring out theological themes.

The crux of his retelling is a family feud between the descendants of Cain (you know, the son of Adam and Eve who killed Abel) and the descendants of Seth. Yes, after Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve had a third son. The clan of Cain is a wretched lot who like murdering, eating meat, building cities and using up resources with no thought for tomorrow. The children of Seth, however, try to live in harmony with creation and are strict vegetarians. (This, by the way, is from the Bible. God doesn’t permit the eating of animals until after the flood in Genesis 9:3.)

The focus of the movie is scriptural, not from the Noah story but from the creation story. It’s about the word “dominion” from Genesis 1:26 where it says God created human beings in God’s own image and set them to have dominion over the earth. Seth and his children interpreted that as having a caretaker role — to tend to God’s creation and nurture it. Cain’s clan took that to mean they could do whatever they wanted with the earth because it belonged to them.

So Aronofsky makes his blockbuster Biblical epic about us and our current moment. This, in fact, is the issue the church and the world is grappling with right now. What does it mean to have “dominion?”

Aronofsky makes a bold choice and deviation from the text in that God does not talk to Noah directly, as God seems to do in scripture, but through dreams and visions. Noah isn’t always sure what God is trying to tell him and sometimes he substitutes his own wisdom for God’s wisdom. This, too, is a sophisticated theme as we try to discern God’s will and are often tempted to substitute our own wisdom for God’s.

Further, another question of some theological relevance to today is: What does it mean to be made in God’s image? The sons of Cain articulate that this is about the power to create life and take life. There is much discussion about whether human beings are intrinsically evil or good or accidentally so.

I give Aronofsky and crew high marks for asking some difficult questions that are intrinsic to the text, if not literally from the text.

As a footnote, I wish it were a better film. The plot lurched along as the writers put up barriers to the inevitable conclusion to try to heighten the tension, but it only succeeded in annoying me as a viewer. They tried to get me invested in the emotional lives of these people, but they didn’t succeed in my case. Also the filmmaker’s chosen palette of grays and browns got wearisome as the film went on; I was really looking forward to the rainbow at the end just to end the colorless monotony.

But, if you do go, go with a friend and set aside some time afterwards for some good conversation. And bring a Bible with you.

The Rev. Lawrence Lee has been the pastor of The United Church of Two Harbors since August 2003 and can be found on Facebook at